How to tell if your child has celiac disease

The gluten-free movement isn’t just a trend, but an actual way of life for the 1 percent of Americans who suffer from celiac disease.

With the disorder four times more common than it was only 50 years ago, more and more children are getting diagnosed. But could your child be one of them?

In children, celiac disease is often missed, as the symptoms are so vague and common to many other types of tummy troubles.

“Celiac disease can present differently in each child [and] some children may not even experience symptoms at all,” explains Ayelet Schieber, Pediatric Registered Dietician with the Pediatric Celiac Disease and Gluten-Related Disorders program at NYU Langone Medical Center.

And not to be the bearer of horrible news, but undiagnosed celiac disease can be a big deal. One study in the medical journal Gastroenterology found that a missed celiac diagnosis increased risk of death nearly four times.

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So what is celiac, anyway? The disease is an immunologic one, grouped with other auto-immune disorders in which somehow, through an environmental, biological or otherwise unknown switch, the body is basically tricked into attacking itself.

When it comes to figuring out if your child may have celiac disease, the road isn’t always easy. “It is important to remember that just as every child is different, so are manifestations of celiac disease in each child,” Schieber explains. There also isn’t one “average” age for children to be diagnosed, so the disorder could appear anywhere from around 6 months, when most babies begin eating solids, all the way through adulthood.

Schieber suggests looking for the following symptoms most common in kids with celiac:

  • Bellyaches
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Poor growth, a slowdown in growth rate or even drastic weight loss
  • Skin rashes
  • Headaches
  • Poor growth of hair, nails and teeth

If celiac disease is suspected based on symptoms, blood tests are usually the next step. If those suggest celiac, an endoscopy (where a small piece of the intestine will be taken and examined under a microscope) will confirm the disorder.

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The next step may be a gluten-free diet, but Schieber is quick to tell parents not to make that leap without first consulting with a physician.

“The gluten-free diet presents difficulty in maintaining adequate fiber and mineral intake, not to mention social anxiety and difficulty among peers,” she explains. “While a gluten-free lifestyle is advantageous for some, it can be a source of unnecessary anxieties and struggles for others.”

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